I used to think of myself as the stubborn, brave, independent type – the type who spoke the truth and stuck up for the oppressed no matter the consequences. After all, I was a kid who stood up to bullies. I regularly stick up for myself. I used to make my living advocating for the poor, the vulnerable, the stranger. I write on contentious issues – issues that wrangle with the concept of justice – all the time.
But the older, or the more self-aware, or the more flawed I become, the more I see how gutless I can be.
Last year I read Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See. In it, there is a scene in which the students of a Nazi-run military school are directed to abuse a (presumably Jewish) prisoner, whom they’ve been told is an escapee from a work camp. The boys are taken outside at 2 a.m. on a cold February morning, where they find the skeletal, barely-clothed man tied to a stake. At their superior’s direction, the boys approach the man one by one, oldest to youngest, to splash him with a bucketful of freezing water. Each time, a cheer goes up from the crowd.
One of the book’s protagonists, Werner, is an underclassman at the school. He takes in the scene with something like horror; he doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. But when his moment comes, when it’s his turn to approach the prisoner, Werner does as he’s told. He splashes his bucketful of water and resumes his place with the first-year cadets. Only Werner’s friend Frederick, a sensitive yet steely boy, has the courage to resist. He pours his bucket of water onto the ground. Handed another, he does the same. Handed a third, he pours it out with an “I will not.”
After I read that scene I felt a dull, gnawing kind of shame because I realized that if I’d been in Werner’s position, I’d have probably done the same as him. I realized that despite the story I like to tell myself – the story of a me who sticks up for the little guy, who stubbornly holds tight to honor and fights injustice – I’m really the kind of person who just wants to get along. I want to get along, move along, keep my head down, cling to whatever comforts I can grasp. I am a Werner, not a Frederick.
I was thinking about that scene the other day as I washed dishes. I was staring out the window, my hands moving under the water, when I suddenly felt a surge of sympathy for the German housewives who turned a blind eye to the build-up to the holocaust. Not because I think they deserve much sympathy (and not because I think we’re in for a repeat of Nazi Germany – I mostly find those fears to be too dramatic or too convenient), but because I now understand how blinded people can be by the mundane.
Day in and day out, my work is to care for my family. I am engaged in an ever-repeating litany of tasks: the dishes, the laundry, the diapers, the meals, the errands, the crawling-around-on-my-hands-and-knees-to-wipe-egg-off-the-floor. There is never enough time. There is always something or someone needing my attention. It is always easy to slip into the lie that this is it – that today’s litany of tasks is all that matters, all that will ever matter.
In this environment, one in which the everyday mundane and the everyday beautiful and the everyday frustrating loom larger than anything else, I have to wonder: Have I become blind to the reality of our day?
Which is it? Is my inclination correct – are constant cries of “Our country is being destroyed!” simply overreactions to disagreements on public policy positions? Or could a more fundamental shift be rumbling beneath our feet?
After all, no human construct is immortal. All governments fall. All societies change. People do real damage to civic institutions and public trust. “Universal” ideals cease to captivate the imagination.
Just as we should be wary of “sky is falling” tendencies, we should also be wary of taking our stable, democratic, republican government for granted. “We the People” are fully capable of messing this thing up.
I have no answers here; I haven’t flipped from “just another day in politics” to “the sky is falling.” I haven’t decided when to panic. But I’m trying to not be dismissive of other people’s panic. I’m trying to remember that no human construct is immortal; I’m leaving open the possibility that our country, or our system of governing it, might really be in danger.
And I’m thinking and praying about who I am – about how empathetic I am to others’ pain, about how I react to injustices, about the role I’m called to play in this world, and about how far this world stretches beyond my kitchen-sink window.
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